I Had An Existential Crisis At Damir Doma’s Berghain Fashion Show

Damir Doma’s show was one of the most anticipated events of Berlin Fashion Week; but the choice to stage his show in Berghain led to some serious cognitive dissonance.

Hotly tipped designer Damir Doma is, above all else, a nomad. The Croatian-born, German-raised designer first turned heads in 2015 when he moved his business from Paris to Milan — a frankly bizarre choice for the protege of minimalist masters Raf Simons and Dirk Schönberger (whose progressive design rep he perpetuates). Doma’s loose attachment to place is part of his intrigue. The medley of influence from the European cities that have shaped him (Münich, Antwerp, Paris and Milan) make for collections which represent a dynamic mix of heritage. More than anything, Doma wants to make a splash, and what better way to bring attention to his name than by showing at the humble Berlin Fashion Week, which unfolds quietly in shadows of Paris’ grandeur? There is a one-way traffic system between Berlin and Paris, whereby Berlin’s most talented quickly get swept up by the prestige and international attention Paris Fashion Week affords (à la GmbH and Dumitrascu). Doma’s decision to migrate from Paris Fashion Week to Berlin sparked a lot of discussion — but what really set tongues wagging was the decision to host the show in the crown jewel of Berlin nightlife, Berghain.

As I made my approach down the dirt road leading to the infamous Berghain door (in my work clothes on a Wednesday, no less), I frankly had no idea what to expect. I was greeted not by muscle-laden, stern-faced bouncers, but by a small, excessively friendly PR rep, whose job was to guide me left of the usual club entrance. Inside, hoards of show-goers were crowded in a small, industrial room, fighting to the front of the line with varying degrees of desperation to confirm their spot on tonight’s sanctified list. The usual Berghain bouncers were guarding the doors to the Halle, a massive room which is only in use for special occasions; their position of power had shifted from guardians of the gates of Klubnacht to fashion-crazed crowd controllers. Before entering Halle, every attendee had to pass the signature Fashion Week back drop and an over-excited photographer, documenting every passing person (so as not to miss anyone name drop worthy). Every white blitz felt like a blasphemous offence to the Berghain club rules, the most famous of which is “no photos”. Inside the massive Halle, an ambient hum played behind the eager sounds of networking and clinking champagne glasses. The club bartenders were also present, though instead of serving Club Mate to exhausted dancers, they were in all black uniforms, carrying cocktails on serving trays.

As I looked out toward a sea of “industry people”, dressed to the nines in outfits which cost far more than the average Berliner’s rent, I had a hard time reconciling what I was seeing with Berghain’s reputation as a haven for anti-establishment techno enthusiasts. Berghain is not an “underground” club, but the strict door policy has somewhat managed to protect its position as a subcultural venue. Despite many clubgoers’ protests that Berghain’s best days are behind it, there is still undeniably an anti-establishment aura to the place. Berghain and its ilk are temples of freedom: the freedom to lose yourself, to indulge your sexual fantasies, to say fuck your office job, and to dance more boldly than ever before. Watching these values clash with the ruthlessly capitalist agenda of the mingling fashion elite was disquieting, to say the least.

And then the show itself began. I will say this: elements of Doma’s AW 2018 presentation matched the venue seamlessly — the runway soundtrack, courtesy of resident DJs Barker and Baumecker, set the scene well. The casting was also on point. The Berlin-based, street-cast models looked like modern incarnations of the Rotterdam youth pictured in ‘90s gabber vids. Their hurried stomps matched the tracks’ unapologetic BPM; their movements were almost manic, heightening that blood-pumping, adrenaline rush feeling that accompanies (or three) spent in Berghain.

However, the synergy of certain facets of the show made the glaring contrasts all the more disturbing. And in terms of generating stomach-churning cognitive dissonance, there was one element which trumped them all: Doma’s clothes. It wasn’t the quality which jarred — Doma served up fresh looks which embodied his signature contrast of hard and soft, with a mix of raw and refined garments. But the collection’s flowing silhouettes and warm colour palette — complete with velvet blazers, chunky knits, silk shirts and face obscuring hats — was far closer to future equestrian than underground techno. The artistry of the collection was undoubtedly overshadowed by the fact that if you wore these outfits to Berghain on any other night, you’d stand no chance of getting in.

Other questions plagued me. How had this show come into being — why had Doma and his team decided Berghain was the perfect venue, and why had Berghain agreed? It became horribly apparent that the spectacle was about the space itself, rather than the collection, or even about Doma as a designer. The show also stuck out as an odd contrast compared to other location-led spectacles in the Berlin Fashion Week calendar. William Fan’s presentation in a Chinese restaurant, for instance, stood out for its symbiotic relationship between space and content. This is not to say, of course, that fashion shows can’t be mounted in spaces which contrast jarringly with the garments on display. The issue is that Damir Doma AW 18 seemed to be trying to erase the cultural gulf between the garments and the venue, rather than playing with it.

At least some of the dissonance between space and content can be attributed to the fact that Doma is not a seasoned Berghain veteran, nor even a seasoned Berlin resident. He has stated in interviews that his only connection to the city is a brief time spent studying, and that he can count “on his two hands” the number of times that’s he’s partied in Berghain. It seems, then, that the decision to present the AW 18 collection in Berghain was pure and naked opportunism. Indeed, the show garnered a lot of publicity on the back of Berghain’s involvement — but this marketing gimmick led to the clothes being totally overshadowed. This wasn’t a Damir Doma show, so to speak. It was A Fashion Show in Berghain.

As the show wore on, other questions began to pervade —questions about access and ownership in regards to Berghain itself. I take no issue with the Berghain owners opening up their venue to proponents of art and culture. It’s admirable, even, to balance out what critics have called a “fascist” door policy with an agenda which supports local artistic talent and its corresponding community. But where should the line be drawn? There was a glaring contrast between, say, the 2013 Staatsballet, and the PR- and blogger-infested, capitalist-driven networking extravaganza unfolding before me. Was this an example of the fashion industry exploiting a subcultural safe space? Can Berghain be exploited if the owners very consciously agreed to host said event? I kept reminding myself that Berghain is a for-profit business, not the romanticised shrine of resistance so many make it out to be. Berghain’s decision to open its doors to the fashion industry is fiscally logical. But the real question is, why now? After so many years of purist dogma? And… for Berlin Fashion Week, of all things?

Don’t get me wrong: Damir Doma AW 2018 was a strong collection, but Doma and co. rendered their collection less memorable by staging their show in what was, by all accounts, the wrong location. In fashion, art, and life, everything is subjective, but if the garments are completely overshadowed by a bizarre choice of location, it’s hard to chalk up the presentation as a success. At least as far as Berghain is concerned, there’s good news: the next series of events Berghain will host are wholeheartedly aligned with the club and its community. 032C and Hans Ulrich Obrist have joined forces to curate Reference, an “international alternative to Berlin Fashion Week”. As part of Reference, Berghain will play host to a number of art, fashion and design events later this year. Given what we know of Reference’s leaders, expect the coming events to be brand with the spirit of the venue, and far less likely to send their attendees into an existential spiral about the ravaged sanctity of the space.

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